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Vahid Sandoghdar pushes back the boundaries of visibility

The boundaries between materials and matter are becoming more easy to observe – thanks to Iranian physicist, Vahid Sandoghdar. His experimental methods are shedding light on nano worlds allowing us, for example, to observe individual viruses on the surface of artificial cell membranes. This is therefore pioneering work for research in the life sciences. Vahid Sandoghdar was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt professorship in 2011 and now works in Germany.

The building blocks of life that the experimental physicist Vahid Sandoghdar is able to make visible are 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a hair. To put that in perspective, it is like a pilot in a plane trying to look at a reflector in the revolving spokes of a bicycle wheel. But the scientist can do what the pilot can not: Vahid Sandoghdar can use the tiny light source of a single molecule and evaluate its paths and environment by raster scanning: ‘A virus scatters light just like a bicycle reflector does. If you work with precision, you can discover it.’

A sensation

For research in material science and bioscience, this new optical access to the smallest of all worlds is sensational. New findings about how a virus behaves can bring greater insights into how it communicates with the cell.

Iranian-born Humboldt Professor Vahid Sandoghdar has played a crucial role in promoting the young discipline of nano-optics. Born in 1966, he went to study in the United States when he was only 17. He obtained a doctorate in laser spectroscopy from Yale University in 1993 and subsequently worked on quantum optics as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris up until 1995. For his post-doctoral lecturing qualification (Habilitation) at Konstanz University in 2001, Vahid Sandoghdar combined his experience with the latest findings in near-field microscopy and the first successful experiments to locate single molecules. The combination of different research areas in optics has revolutionised the analysis of nanometre structures.

Crossing boundaries for success

For the multi-talented physicist, Vahid Sandoghdar, boundaries are there to be overcome or moved. Thus he often ignores the difference between theoretical and experimental physics: ‘What fascinates and motivates me is the perfect transfer to the laboratory of a thought experiment.’

In 2001, Vahid Sandoghdar was appointed Professor of Physical Chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH), where he and his team constructed the smallest possible optical transistor, for which they received international acclaim. He also set up the Center for Imaging Science and Technology (CIMST) in Zurich and was awarded the coveted Advanced Investigators Grant by the European Research Council (ERC) in 2010.

A wellspring of ideas

Vahid Sandoghdar came to Germany again in early 2011 to take up a Humboldt professorship at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. At the same time he was also appointed director of the newly founded Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light. He now hopes to collaborate closely with life scientists, making biophotonics and nano-quantum optics key research areas in Erlangen. Vahid Sandoghdar is also setting up an interdisciplinary Optical Imaging Center: ‘The important thing now is to choose the best ideas carefully,’ he said, finding it difficult to rein in his abundant ideas. ‘If we can combine basic research with applications, that’s really fantastic.’

August 2011

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